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Dylan Carlson, the sole consistent member of Earth, appeared on the back cover of his band’s 1993 debut full-length, Earth 2, looking like a typical headbanger: He had stringy, shoulder-length hair and wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of Morbid Angel, a popular death-metal act. The all-instrumental record itself, however—released on Sub Pop at the height of the grunge boom and preceded by an EP that featured Kurt Cobain—owed as much to classical music as to metal. Like late-20th-century minimalists Terry Riley and Steve Reich, the Seattle-based guitarist used extreme repetition to make music that seems like it could go on forever. He didn’t quite get there—the longest track on the album clocks in at around 30 minutes. But Earth 2 did something that is almost as impressive: It blurred the distinction between what pummels and what soothes.
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Had Carlson continued along this path, the careers of bands like Sunn O))) and Boris would’ve been made redundant. But, in the mid-to-late ’90s, the man who invented drone-metal went on hiatus, in part to deal with reported drug problems. When he emerged five years ago, he’d reconceived himself as a serious student of his instrument, not just a guy fronting a band. “His current approach is as a guitar player—a practicing guitar player,” Sunn O))) guitarist and Earth 2 devotee Stephen O’Malley told me in 2006. Gone are the metallic intervals of the Sub Pop years. In their place, Carlson uses single-note melodies and chords that ring out with the sound of open strings. His latest, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, is the third full-length in this style, which began with 2005’s Hex (or Printing in the Infernal Method). In an interview with the British Web site Metal Chaos, Carlson calls it “music of a specifically American character.”
You might call it country-rock. And you wouldn’t be wrong. Like Hex, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull evokes the West as it appears in John Ford films: mythic, wide-open, frightening yet full of potential. Its riffs reference the honky-tonk sound of the Bakersfield scene, and its rhythms shadow the riffs at an unhurried clip. The whole thing might seem like a grand departure from the sound of Earth 2 were it something other than what it is: a moody album of drone-based instrumentals. For all of its dust-’n’-dungaree trappings, the new album is as much orthodox country as Earth 2 was—well, you get the picture. Carlson made this point explicit last year when he released Hibernaculum, an album that reworks a number of earlier Earth tunes to reflect the band’s new style. Nothing from that effort would sound out of place on either Hex or Earth’s latest.
The biggest difference between Earth versions 1.0 and 2.0 is Carlson’s use of space. “I don’t like busy-ness,” the guitarist says in Within the Drone, artist-designer Seldon Hunt’s documentary about Earth’s 2006 European tour. In that sense, the band’s genre change might be Carlson’s way of getting closer to an ideal Earth sound. On the new album’s “Miami Morning Coming Down II (Shine),” Carlson forms a sparse melody out of no more than seven clean guitar notes, and his chorus—if you can call it that—is essentially the twang of bent strings, which blend, gradually, into the hum of Steve Moore’s churchlike organ chords. It’s country music—or at least countryesque—for sure, but, more important, it’s about as simple and uncluttered as a song can get and still be a song.
The rest of the record is no more complex than that, and at least one of the compositions, opener “Omens and Portents I: The Driver,” is nothing but a single motif played over and over again for almost 10 minutes. The point of this music is not chordal development or key changes or anything like that (that would be “busy-ness”). What interests Carlson is the resonance of his chosen instrument and the nuance that can be found, as he says, within the drone. So it doesn’t matter that Bill Frisell, an accomplished improviser, shows up for almost half of the nearly hour-long album and never takes a solo. The jazz guitarist is there not only because he’s comfortable working in this vein (as evidenced by some of his Americana-tinged material) but also because his talents are textural as well as improvisational. Give him a couple of effects pedals and he can stretch a note into infinity.
Frisell is an excellent name to have in the liner notes, but he’s no better a collaborator than the rest of the musicians on this record. This is the band that has toured with Carlson since Hex—drummer Adrienne Davies, keyboardist Moore, and bassist Don McGreevy—and they do exactly what Earth members need to do, which is to say, they forget about themselves and focus on the guy in charge. Davies is perhaps the most impressive in this regard. She never indulges in a drum fill or otherwise tries to stand out, and yet somehow she manages to sound musical, not robotic. On “Omens and Portents II: Carrion Crow,” Davies gets just enough of a slap-back echo out of her 4/4 beat to make the track seem almost funky.
It’s kind of touching to realize how much this patient and humble band sacrifices just to play with Carlson—and play with him for years. You can see the devotion in the Hunt documentary. At one point backstage, Carlson tells Moore that he loves the early morning and usually wakes up by 6 a.m. “We should hang out some time at that hour,” Moore says. When the soft-spoken guitarist agrees—“We can go have coffee”—Moore smiles and rocks back and forth in his chair like some kid who just found out he’s going to Disneyland. You get the sense that Moore enjoys being around Carlson—who was once vilified for purchasing the shotgun that Cobain used to commit suicide—as much as Carlson needs people like Moore around him.
He’s got them now. And they sound great. The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull might never be as important as Earth 2—a sleeper hit if there ever was one—but, hey, who knows? Someday Carlson’s post-hiatus music could mean as much to country as Earth 2 means to metal. If that day ever comes, two things are for certain. One, Carlson will by then have moved on to some other mimimalist-informed plateau. And, two, Earth’s latest will be revered as a classic, the sort of record that true believers refer to only cryptically, as if to speak of it in a less-than-exclusive fashion—acronyms, abbreviations, hushed tones—might somehow break the spell. Carlson’s made that record before. Who’s to say he hasn’t done it again?